Anthony Cary / Oct 2023
After the failure of the proposed EU Constitution in the early 2000s, and the difficulty of securing Lisbon, there was a collective disinclination to tinker further with the EU Treaties (and a sense that it might never again be possible to achieve the public support that would be required for another ambitious exercise in restructuring). David Cameron’s pre-referendum efforts to ‘renegotiate’ aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU were bound to end in tears because they could never have amounted to much without Treaty change, yet there was no appetite for that in Europe, as he should have understood.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, poses existential questions for the EU which require urgent answers. The Union is poised to embark on a new wave of enlargement. And there is renewed willingness to contemplate quite fundamental change to enable this.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU had been happy to enter into an ambitious Association Agreement, but on the question of full EU membership Ukraine had been fobbed off with forms of words about its long-term European vocation. There is now widespread acceptance that this drift must not continue. The issue looks set to dominate the European Council in December.
But if Ukraine, then Moldova. And if Moldova, what of Georgia and the Balkan applications? What of Turkey? In any case, Ukraine is clearly a long way from meeting accession criteria. Accession Treaties have always included transitional arrangements, but these are not going to be enough to meet the challenge this time.
The general question of enlarging the EU while maintaining the ambitions of ever closer union has been a favourite topic for think tanks and political speeches for decades. How to maintain the ambitions of the vanguard while accommodating those least willing or able to integrate further? How to prevent the dilution which many saw as the logic behind Mrs Thatcher’s enthusiasm for enlargement?
There has been endless discussion of concentric circles, multi-speeds, ‘variable geometry’ and so on. But phrasemaking and analogies about the need to prevent the convoy being held up by the slowest ship are a lot easier than hard proposals that might actually command agreement. It is formidably difficult in practice to introduce flexibilities without damaging the integrity of the whole or eroding the four freedoms.
Those ideas that have been tried – such as the provisions for ‘enhanced co-operation’ within the EU (between some member states willing to go further than others) – have been disappointing in practice, with little take-up.
The latest contribution to this debate is the recent expert paper commissioned by the French and German governments. It offers a menu of suggestions for consideration. The underlying logic is that if the EU is to widen further it must also deepen, at least at its core, to prevent unravelling. And it must strengthen its ability to apply the rule of law, introducing new budgetary conditionality and ‘refining’ Article 7 to discourage open challenges to the authority of the Commission (such as we have seen over judicial independence, for example, or most recently the refusal to lift bans on Ukrainian grain imports).
The options for deepening offered by the expert group include a smaller or more ‘heirarchic’ Commission; the extension of QMV (including over spending decisions); more comprehensive co-decision with the European Parliament; a bigger budget; common debt issuance, and so on. Many of these are re-runs of proposals that failed during the debates over the EU constitution – but we are in different times now (and the UK is no longer there to lead the resistance).
The suggestion that has provoked the most interest is a revival of the idea of a formal system of concentric circles – from the Eurozone and Schengen at the core, to full EU membership outside the Eurozone, to a larger circle of Associate Members (essentially EEA membership), to membership of the new European Political Community beyond the direct reach of EU law.
In many ways, this would be a formalisation of developments that have already occurred. The EU, denounced by UK Eurosceptics for ideological inflexibility, has actually been incredibly inventive over the years in accommodating differences, as the UK opt-outs attest.
The British have given up any right to enter this critical debate, so this is gratuitous counsel – but for what it is worth I think that there has been a lot to say for the organic way in which the EU has developed over the years, with many ambiguities about what it really is, and what it aspires to become. The EU is a hybrid federal / confederal system, with what Luuk Van Middlaar aptly described, in his book 'Passage to Europe', as a ‘purgatory’ – an intermediate element between the warriors of nationalism and the priests of supra-nationalism.
My instinct would be against a huge effort to restructure the EU according to some grand new formal blueprint, with an ambitious exercise in fundamental Treaty change. Insofar as this is possible, I would see more virtue in building – wherever possible – on the circles of membership and association that have already developed, almost by accident, and which have proved so stunningly successful.